Five Exercises to Keep Your Back Strong While Traveling

As my husband and I plan our trip to Asia, I worry that my back will go out on the road and I’ll be struggling to pull my small suitcase and wear a backpack with all my camera gear. (That’s the luggage I plan to take now. We’ll see what I end up carrying on the plane in September.)

One thing to know about back pain is that the pain is often disproportionate to the actual injury. I originally strained my back in 1994, the first of many injuries caused by exercising beyond my strength. In December 2014 I finally had an MRI of my lower back, which showed some small disc bulges and a bit of arthritis at L5-S1. So I asked the doctor, “Does that mean the pain I’ve been feeling on and off for 9 months is mostly muscle pain?” He said yes.

I wouldn’t have been happy with that answer last April, when I spent two weeks in Brighton and London, England. My back was KILLING me, especially in the mornings, while standing, or while walking with a heavy purse. Waiting in line to get into Westminster Abbey was an exquisite form of torture. As soon as I got in, I rushed to the nearest seat with back support and sat there until my lower back relaxed.

I was very, very frustrated in England by my inability to get rid of the pain. My back had already been hurting longer than the usual two weeks, and it showed no signs of relaxing or getting stronger.

What changed things for me? Attending a “back class” at a local hospital. Most important, I learned —or relearned—that the back heals very slowly, much more slowly than, say, knees. I had been doing the right exercises, but I hadn’t been giving them enough time.

Five Simple Exercises

1. Knee to chest: Lie on your back (with legs extended or knees bent) and pull one knee gently toward your chest, holding underneath the knee. Pull to the point at which you feel strain (not pain!), and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side.

2. Knee to opposite shoulder: Lie on your back and grasp your thigh above the knee with one hand and place your other hand on the outside of your calf. Pull the knee toward the opposite shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side.

3. Hamstring stretch: Lie on your back and extend one leg straight up. Place both hands on the back of your thigh and pull the leg gently toward your chest.

4. Pelvic tilts: This comes from yoga. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your spine in a neutral position. Inhale and tilt your hips gently forward; exhale and tilt them back, pressing your lower back gently toward the floor. This is meant to be a SMALL movement. Do perhaps 10 repetitions and then pause to see how you feel.

5. Knee lifts (transverse abdominus exercise): Lie on your back with your knees bent. Hook the fingers of each hand inside the hip bone, and concentrate on tightening the muscles in your lower belly between your fingers. See if you can tighten it so that you feel it in your lower back. Lift each knee in turn, doing your best to keep the muscle tight. (You don’t have to leave your hands on your hips.) There are many variations on this exercise. You can try just tightening the muscle, you can lift your knees in turn, you can let each knee fall out to the side in turn, or you can slowly extend each leg by sliding your heel along the floor.

Doing all these exercises in sequence can take a while, so if you’re pressed for time, just take a few moments to pull your knee to your chest at various times throughout the day. You don’t have to be lying down to do the first 2 exercises.

I’ve been living, gardening, and traveling with this injury for 20 years.  Sometimes it really is a nuisance, but it is possible to keep your back strong while traveling. Just remember that back injuries take a long time to heal and that you will need to keep doing these exercises after the pain has receded.

Because travel involves so much walking and hauling, it’s a good idea to do these exercises even if you don’t have a back injury. Also, you can find many more exercises online. If you have recently injured your back, I do NOT recommend doing a version of Cobra pose. I think it places too much strain on the vertebrae.

One final tip: When carrying or picking things up, keep your back straight if at all possible. Don’t lean over to reach something—move closer to it. Bend your knees and squat to pick something up, instead of bending all the way over.